NEO – On the Comfort Women Issue


Vladimir Terekhov for New Eastern Outlook, Moscow

First published January 17, 2016

Signing of the South Korean-Japanese intergovernmental agreement on “final and irreversible” solution of the so-called comfort women issue on December 28, 2015 in Seoul will occupy a prominent place in line of the events of the past year in East Asia.

In fact, it is the only certain fact that could be said about signing of the agreement by the Foreign Ministers of Japan and the Republic of Korea.

It is much more difficult to judge how it would affect the political situation in East Asia. The answer seems obvious only at first glance: the arising prospect of removing one of the issues in relationships between Japan and the ROK should contribute to at least deterrence of the degradation of the situation in the key Asia-Pacific subregion.

However, we should not overlook the fact that the “comfort women issue”, being extremely important for the bilateral Japanese-ROK relations, downgrades its immediate importance within the list of factors affecting the development of the situation in Asia Pacific Region. The problem of assessing the vector of foreign policy preferences of the Republic of Korea, whose leadership has so far managed to balance on the “fields of gravity” created by the three leading players in the region, is much more important for the United States, China and Japan.

At the time of the current president of South Korea Park Geun-hye, the South Korean Foreign Policy vector is to some extent directed towards China. Whether they plan to drift towards Japan (and if so, then to what extent), is in fact, the question that is now (after the Seoul agreement) is interesting for all three major regional players.

A complex attitude of Beijing to the signing of Japanese-South Korean political document, the first in recent years, was reflected in the title of the article in the Chinese Global Times “Comfort women deal will not aid Tokyo”. First and foremost, what deserves attention in this article, comes to the thesis on the “key role” of the United States in the success of Seoul talks.

This statement cannot be denied, just as Washington could (but not necessarily) become the main beneficiary of the fact of signing of the Japanese-South Korean agreement on the issue, which for decades served as the main formal ground for bad relations between Seoul and Tokyo.

It was exactly formal, as in fact in order to find the reason for suspicious nature of the perception of Japanese by the Koreans (which to a great extent remains up-to-date) we have to get much deeper into the history of the bilateral relations. The new trends in Japan’s defense policy also add to such feelings among the Koreans.

In its turn, for Washington the poor state of relations between its closest Asian allies remained a major obstacle for the implementation of the long-term plans for creation of a tripartite military and political union “United States-Japan-South Korea.”

It is not a coincidence that Susan Rice, the US President National Security Adviser, on behalf of the administration of the country immediately congratulated “the two most important allies” in connection with the agreement signed in Seoul.

Korean President Park Geun-hye

In his turn, Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe, in the telephone conversation with Park Geun-hye, held immediately after the signing of the bilateral document, proposed to his South Korean counterpart to lead the implementation and deal with the issues with the accord spirit. The immediate positive reaction of Japanese business to the Seoul agreement also seems remarkable.

At the same time, China almost openly expect that the recent efforts made by Japan and the ROK to resolve “the comfort women issue,” will fail. And there are certain grounds for these expectations.

We are talking about a number of events that immediately followed out signing of the document, allowing casting a doubt on the key provision of the “final and irreversible” nature of the resolution “of the comfort women issue.”

In this regard, the public opinion survey conducted in ROK on the removal of the famous sculpture of a “teenage girl sitting on a chair,” which since the end of 2011 is located directly opposite the windows of the building of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, seems to be indicative. Its main purpose was to recall the reality (and not contrivedness, as it is considered by many in Japan) of the “comfort women issue”.

Japan has repeatedly demanded that this piece of art be removed. And now, after apparent resolution of the issue, as well as in order to promote the process of thawing the bilateral political relations, it seems to be logical to move the sculpture “somewhere out of (Japanese) sight”, as it disturbs the Embassy staff.

The issue of “moving” the sculpture was raised on December 28, 2015 at the final press conference of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Japan and the ROK, Fumio Kishida, and Yun Byung-Se. And the first was more specific on the matter than the latter.

Speaking to Japanese journalists on January 4, 2016, Fumio Kishida confirmed the expectations of official Tokyo on not seeing next to the Embassy in Seoul, “a teenage girl sitting on a chair.” Moreover, in his interpretation, the question of removing the sculpture became a part of the content of the bilateral agreement. The next day, Fumio Kishida said that the Japanese government will “closely monitor” the situation around the sculpture.

However, the results of the public polls on the issue among the South Koreans show that it would not be very easy for the official Seoul to do this, because the two-thirds of respondents were “against” that removal. Moreover, what especially should alert the leadership of ROK is that mostly younger generation of South Koreans opposes implementation of such plans. Almost 87% of them voted “against” and only 4% were “pro” removal of the sculpture among them.

The complexity of the situation in which official Seoul found itself after signing of the agreement with Japan on December 28, 2015, was reflected in the statement by Yun Byung-Se, made at a regular press briefing on January 5, 2016. He said that the government would not take any action in relation to the sculpture until (probably in the middle of this year) completion of the preparation of the “previously scheduled” white paper on the “comfort women issue”.

However, Japan should not count on the fact that after the agreement with the ROK the ball in the political game around the issue has irreversibly rolled away from their territory. The matter is that not only Korean women but also women from other countries, such as, e.g. China, were recruited into the military brothels.

Thus, the outgoing Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, on the next day after the announcement of the Japan-South Korea agreement, appealed to the Government of Japan to offer a similar apology to former Taiwan “sex slaves” and provide a compensation to them.

There were (very roughly) around 2,000 of them in total, but only four are alive now.

Therefore, meeting of such a request of the leadership of Taiwan will require even less financial expenses from Japan and it will be made even with certain complacency, since in Taiwan the colonial period in the island’s history is considered in much more favourable for Japan terms than that in the Korean peninsula. And in general, the Japan-Taiwan relations are rather positively developing.

Japan may face much more serious consequences due to (yet hypothetical) actualization by China of the same “comfort women issue” because, according to Chinese estimates, there were hundreds of thousands of such women. However, according to Japanese estimates, there were not more than 20…40 thousand women in the military brothels, most of which were Japanese women.

So, instead of taking out an unpleasant historical thorn, the Seoul agreement may serve as opening of the “Pandora’s box” for Tokyo. Everything will depend on the willingness of Beijing to use “comfort women issue” as a tool in the political game with Tokyo. The prospect of actualization of the issue by China will be governed by the vector of the development of relations with Japan, the direction of which does not inspire much optimism.

For, despite the revival of bilateral official contacts, there are clear signs of expansion of the zone of current Japan-China direct confrontation in the area of the East China Sea to the South China Sea, and, perhaps, to the Indian Ocean.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.



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